By Robert Marquand , Staff writer of the Christian Science Monitor
SEOUL - Teenagers Kim Hyuk and Kang Hyuk come alive with the paintbrush and the sketch pad. But, as refugees from North Korea, their visual work tends toward the somber.
Before escaping last year, Mr. Kim was forcibly "reeducated" in a North Korean "Enlightenment Center" - and his canvases are fit for an Amnesty International poster. Mr. Kang uses pencil and charcoal to capture his story of hiding in China after fleeing the North.
Now both young men will exhibit their work as part of an event starting Sunday in the Czech Republic, capital of Prague - a conference on human rights in North Korea and the ongoing problem of what to do about North Koreans who want to escape the brutal regime of Kim Jong Il.
Last year, TV footage of desperate North Korean refugee families, children, and grandchildren rushing into foreign embassies in China for asylum created an awareness of a problem that dates back to the 1996 famine in the North.
Yet the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula that has occupied Asia since October - and news like Thursday's confirmation by US officials that Kim Jong Il has restarted his nuclear reactor at the Yongbyon facility - often overshadows the daily struggles of ordinary Koreans unhappy with life in the North, analysts say. By some estimates, a third of the North Korean population are considered hostile or "enemies" of the state.
Raising awareness abroad is the mission of the Seoul-based Citizens Alliance for North Korean Human Rights - started by the Rev. Benjamin H. Yoon who also founded Amnesty International in South Korea. The group started small five years ago, with two meetings in Seoul; they held a larger meeting in Japan last year. Now, they're bringing their message about prison camps and physical torture in one of the most systematically oppressive regimes in the world, to an international venue - a former communist state in Europe.
"We found our concern with the plight of Koreans under Kim Jong Il was well received in Prague," says Mr. Yoon. "They've shared a similar experience."
Last September, Yoon and a delegation from Seoul met then Czech President Havel, who agreed to support the three-day meeting of some 150 delegates and parliamentarians from Asia and Europe, which starts Sunday.
Perhaps another reason for the Prague venue is that the issue of refugees is extremely sensitive inside South Korea itself. Yoon argues that for several years, South Korea has been so intent on a policy of dialogue and aid with the North that human rights became an inconvenient topic - one that is consistently airbrushed out of the public mind.
Yoon hopes that under the new South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun, whose early professional life was spent as a labor lawyer, Seoul will once again pay attention to conditions across the border. "We are optimistic," he says.
On the agenda for the Prague meeting is discussion of China, which currently sends escapees from the North back home. Activists in Seoul say the crackdown by Chinese authorities has nearly shut down their work.
"Doing anything at the moment is very difficult," says Tim Peters, who runs a Seoul-based food-aid program. "Many of those assisting refugees have been kicked out of China. There are seven activists now in prison there. You don't hear about the refugees, because they are being returned by China to the North."
China argues that it is a sovereign country that has a treaty of repatriation with the North, and that it does not condone the activities of those who enter China to help others break the law.